A navy sergeant in an elite special forces unit testified in court about the torture he and his colleagues suffered at the hands of the Turkish police, revealing some of the gruesome details of the abuse including sexual assault and threats to rape his wife and daughter.
Mevlüt Öncel, a 49-year-old first sergeant in Underwater Offense (Su Altı Taarruz, or SAT), the equivalent of the US Marines, gave shocking details at a hearing on July 23, 2018 at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court. Speaking for the first time after spending 25 months in pre-trial detention awaiting an indictment on coup charges and a trial date, the sergeant told the panel of judges about the physical, psychological and sexual abuse he endured.
His terrible ordeal was also registered by a delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), a Council of Europe-affiliated body, when he was interviewed in jail. The Turkish government vetoed publication of the report, which documented the torture and abuse of many detainees in the aftermath of a false flag coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The CPT has stated since 2016 that it has no authority to release the report without Turkey’s approval.
Öncel and his colleagues in the SAT unit were brought to a gendarmerie station located in Kazan, less than an hour north of the Turkish capital city Ankara. The district gendarmerie post was the first place officers who had been at Akıncı Air Base on various assignments on July 15 and were rounded up were taken.
The station was effectively turned into a torture center when the police, some in plainclothes, took over from the gendarmerie command, which was told that only the police were authorized to process, take statements and refer military officers to the prosecutor’s office.
Although active duty officers can only be processed by the Central Command, a military investigation unit, not the police, under Turkish law, the government simply ignored the Code on Criminal Procedure and de facto suspended the protections afforded military detainees.
The police officers assaulted detainees with batons, stripped them down to their underwear, and beat and tortured them for hours. The court records paint a picture of the police acting as judge, jury and executioner with complete disregard for rights of the detainees held at the Kazan gendarmerie post.
Öncel and his friend Erdinç Kurt, who is also a SAT member, thought they were turning themselves in to a safe refuge at the gendarmerie post and an escape from the chaotic events in and around the air base, where the landing strip was being bombed by jets on orders from the government. When they arrived at the Kazan station, they were shocked to see many officers stripped to their underwear and covered in blood, apparently from torture. They were forced to kneel in the courtyard under the hot sun.
“The gendarmerie took us to the Kazan gendarmerie post. When I was still in the car, I saw people in civilian clothes as well as in uniforms. Most of them had wooden sticks in their hands. I also saw naked people leaning against the wall of the building and also sitting. Some of them were SAT members, our friends, some of them I didn’t know, but they were all bruised and bloodied on their heads and hands and distraught. It was obvious that they were subjected to terrible beatings and torture,” Öncel recalled.
As soon as they stepped out of the vehicle, the police started attacking them with sticks, kicking and punching them. The beatings soon turned into torture and the violence steadily increased, with the police officers working in shifts. Sexual torture followed as well, according to Öncel, who said he could not talk about the details in the courtroom but rather put them in writing and submitted them to the court. Nordic Monitor was unable to locate the written statement but obtained the court transcript of his testimony as well as medical reports that verified the torture.
The perpetrators were also filming the torture at the gendarmerie post. Many were threatened with the rape of their wives and daughters. Öncel related how he thought he could save his daughter by saying that he had a son, not a daughter. “Someone asked whether I had a daughter. I couldn’t say I had a little girl. I was terrified and lied. I said I had a little boy, and this is exactly what he told me: ‘Well, that’ll do The sex doesn’t matter.’ Now I’m asking, what is this? What kind of person does such a thing? I don’t want to talk about this any further,” Öncel testified, stopping short of revealing further details on the abuse.
The sergeant said he did not even remember when the torture ended. What he recalled was that he found himself shivering from a chilly night wind, in wet clothes, leaning against the building in the yard. “After beatings, torture, starvation and thirst, now the test of the cold had begun. If I remember correctly, I was taken to a prosecutor’s office later in the night or in the morning,” he added. His statement was also tampered with, and the prosecutor added details to his statement that he never gave.
His file has one medical report issued on July 17, 2016 by the Dr. Nafiz Körez Sincan Public Hospital, which recorded some of the torture and abuse Öncel had endured. Dr. Zehra Güven Çetin of the cardiology department wrote that he took beatings to his back, arms and legs and had multiple bruises on all over his body. Nevertheless, she cleared him as fit to stay in detention under such conditions. Medical doctors were threatened by the police to not put torture and beatings in medical reports, and most complied for fear of being arrested on fabricated charges.
After a quick arraignment held at 02:48 hours on July 18, he was sent to Sincan F1-type Prison, where he was put in solitary confinement for a long time. The punishment of detainees in solitary cells is another form of torture used by Turkish authorities to inflict more pain on victims in prisons.
At one point, Öncel was surprised to see the CPT delegation, which was conducting a special visit to inspect the situation. They somehow found Öncel and wanted to talk to him.
“In the early days in prison, the door to the solitary cell where I was confined was opened. I saw civilians at the door accompanied by guards. They said they came from the CPT, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and that they wanted to meet with individuals who had been tortured and that they wanted to talk to me in this context. So the request came from them. I talked to them. They wanted to see signs of torture. They wanted me to tell them what I’d been through. I told them,” Öncel said.
The CPT delegation’s visit between August 28 and September 6, 2016 came amid widespread allegations torture and abuse, first raised by Amnesty International, which stated that it had collected credible evidence that detainees in Turkey were beaten, tortured and on some occasions raped in official and unofficial detention centers across the country.
However, the details of the CPT report were never made public because Turkey vetoed its publication and has not lifted its objection since 2016. In fact CPT President Mykola Gnatovskyy stated in 2017 that even though he “[wanted] to discuss the findings,” he could not comment on the report due to Ankara’s decision.
The torture was also recorded in internal communications between government agencies. In a three-page document, a copy of which was obtained by Nordic Monitor, Kazan gendarmerie post commander Lt. Murat Bozdağan and five sergeants – Osman Gök, Semis Kaman, Osman Tamaç, Abidin Sarıoğlu and Serhat Kalkan, who were assigned to the post — claimed they did not know how and by whom the detainees were tortured. As they tried to explain the medical report that recorded the torture, the post officers said the police had assumed authority and that the gendarmerie did not process or interrogate the detainees at all. They named Kadir Yılmaz and Hakan Kutlu as the police officers who took over the custody of the detainees from them.
However, the Turkish government issued an executive decree providing immunity for officials who were accused of torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities and prisons. Based on this decree, prosecutors in Turkey refrained from conducting any probe into allegations of torture and abuse.
Öncel was on a leave of absence when he was enlisted to be part of an emergency mission team by his commanding officer, which was not unusual for SAT team members who were often scrambled at the last minute as a rapid response team to intervene in breaking developments on special assignment. He and his navy colleagues were transported to the military section of Istanbul Atatürk Airport, from where they were flown on a CASA aircraft to Akıncı Air Base in Ankara. They did not know about the mission or where they were even heading. For Öncel, nothing seemed out of the ordinary as he had taken part in many missions in Turkey and abroad under exactly the same circumstances.
When they landed, they were briefed on their mission, which was to secure the base against a terrorist threat. “I learned there that a terrorist attack was expected, that the chief of general staff [Hulusi Akar] and force commanders were all at the base and that we would protect the base,” Öncel recalled.
He was assigned to the outer perimeter near the entry gate and took a position close to a wall and spent the night there. In the morning light he canvassed the area to spot vulnerable positions, if any, where terrorists might infiltrate. He did not find any areas that could be easily breached.
The SAT team members were familiar with continuous alerts at the command base, which had received multiple intelligence reports from the police, the General Staff and intelligence agency MIT about possible terrorist attacks on military bases and installations in the weeks leading up to the failed coup on July 15, 2016.
The terror alerts were taken seriously by all military bases and installations around the country, especially after the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacked General Staff service busses that were transporting military officers in Ankara on February 17, 2016, killing 29 people. Deadly terrorist attacks in Ankara and Istanbul by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed hundreds of people in 2015 and 2016, which raised the alert level across the country. The General Staff issued orders to all commanders to beef up security in and around bases, military housing compounds and key strategic locations.
The SAT member had no idea he was one of many soldiers who were mobilized to make it appear that the military was carrying out a coup when in fact it was a false flag operation planned by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his military and intelligence chief in order to launch a mass purge of NATO’s second largest army and staff the vacated positions with Islamists and neo-nationalists.
The first shock Öncel experienced was when he and his team members came under machine gun fire that quickly stopped. Then the base came under bombardment.
The situation quickly became chaotic, and his commanding officer, Özay Cödel, told team members that they had been taken to the base on false pretenses and SAT Group Commander Col. Mustafa Turan Ecevit was not picking up his phone. “Captain Özay said he would hold those responsible to account after explaining that the situation smelled of lies and betrayal. I had the same feeling as him. I was asking myself questions about what happened, how could something like this could happen and how we ended up like this” Öncel noted, collecting his thoughts at the time about how they were misled.
Öncel did not have a chance to find out what really happened on July 15 when he was imprisoned after the torture and abuse he endured during detention. Despite multiple petitions, he was denied access to the indictment and evidence case file for two years, preventing him from mounting an effective defense when he was put on the stand in court. When he was finally allowed to see the indictment and evidence in prison on April 9, 2018, Turkish authorities limited the time allotted to him to use the computer. The short time was not enough to sort through tens of thousands of pages compiled by the prosecutor in the indictment and its annexes.
At the end of proceedings that were marred by a series of procedural flaws, tampered evidence and the inability of lawyers to mount an effective defense, the court ruled on November 26, 2020 to convict him on coup charges and sentenced him to aggravated life, which had replaced capital punishment in Turkey.